Fans of The Phil Silvers Show will remember Billie Allen as WAC Billie, one of the Colonel's office staff.
Billie was born Wilhelmina Louise Allen on January 13, 1925 in Richmond, Virginia to Mamie Wimbush Allen and William Roswell Allen. She was raised in Richmond and attended both Randolph Street School and Elba Elementary School before graduating in 1941.
At Hampton University she was inspired by Romare Bearden and mentored by Billie Davis. Drawn to show business, Billie moved to New York City in 1943 to take ballet classes and to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Her first Broadway appearance was as a dancer in the 1944 hit musical On The Town.
In 1949 Billie appeared in the film Souls Of Sin with Jimmy Wright and William Greaves. In 1953, Allen performed in the Broadway play, Take A Giant Step with Lou Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge and Lincoln Kilpatrick.
It was in 1955 that she was hired to play the part of WAC Billie in The Phil Silvers Show. Whilst appearing in Bilko Billie also had a role in popular soap opera The Edge Of Night. She also appeared in Nat Hiken's Car 54, Where Are You?.
In 1964 she was cast in Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, and in 1990, directed the play’s revival. She also portrayed Vertel in the movie Black Like Me in 1964 and appeared on stage in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie. In the follwing decades Billie has appeared in numerous films and television programs including Route 66, The Wiz, Winter Kills, The Vernon Johns Story, Eddie Murphy Raw and Law and Order. In the early 1980s she directed the off-Broadway play Home featuring Samuel L. Jackson, and in 2001, she directed Saint Lucy’s Eyes starring Ruby Dee.
Billie is a founding member of the Women’s Project and Productions and also served as founding member and co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women. In 1973 along with Morgan Freeman, Garland Lee Thompson and Clayton Riley she helped to found the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop. She interviewed Rosetta LeNoire, Julia Miles and Ruby Dee for the theatre archives of the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and in 1999 and 2000, served as a voting member of the Tony Awards nominating board.
In 1981 Billie married composer/arranger Luther Henderson. In 2002 the couple won the Pioneer Awards at the Audelco VIV Awards. Sadly, Luther passed away in 2003 following a lengthy illness. Today Billie lives happily in New York. She has two children from a previous marriage.
I recently had the great pleasure of speaking to Billie and she was happy to talk about her life, her career and her time on The Phil Silvers Show. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
"I was born in 1925 in Richmond, Virginia. My parents, especially my mother, took me to see everything when I was a little girl - plays, musicals, ballet. I remember once a show from Monte Carlo came to town and I recall us going to see a wonderful touring opera company. We'd go to see them all. So I kind of gravitated towards performing.
My parents were both in the medical profession and always busy so the time we spent together was precious. The routine was that every summer I went to camp for six weeks. Then when that finished I'd go to my mother in New York and she'd take me to see shows, plays, take me to ballet class....and it was wonderful. She enjoyed doing it and I enjoyed her taking me.
When I got older I told my parents that I would go to med school, to be a paediatrician, because that was more acceptable to them. But what I really wanted was to perform. I knew deep inside that I was going to do theatre.
I began as a dancer in musicals and my first job was in On The Town. I'd studied in most forms of dance...ballet, tap and modern so I was well prepared. After that I got some regular theatre and drama work and then I got a call from CBS. I went to their offices and it just felt like I was surrounded by people and I thought this is not for me so I left.
Later I got a call from CBS and they said Nat Hiken wanted to see me. I'd never heard of him but I went along anyway. I met him and he was very sweet. He told me about his show and that he wanted me to join the cast.
I had the most wonderful time on the show. Both Nat and Phil were very kind to me. I learned so much from Nat about how to direct and Phil was just about the sweetest man I ever knew. He was very shy....the other boys would go to lunch but Phil would stay behind....One day he told me that I was gonna make it and he was right.
It was such a fun, happy time. It didn't feel like work. Phil was so nice to all us girls and looked after us. He was took a real interest in everybody. It was one the happiest things I ever worked on!
When the show finished we kept in touch for a while. He'd call me to make sure I was working and to see if I needed anything. A lovely, lovely man. I worked with Nat again when I did a few episodes of Car 54, Where Are You?
As a performer I've done musicals, comedy, drama - on television, in movies and on stage. I've also done some directing which I really enjoyed and I've been involved in many, many aspects of theatre.
I've had a wonderful life and a wonderful career and I'm very, very happy!".
Billie Allen Henderson